With a few weeks under the belt, it’s time to start looking at the hot and cold streaks of players in April. I’ll always remember Chris Shelton for getting off to a blazing start, only to fade hard as I kept holding on to him, hoping he would get back to being a positive value.
I’m a skeptic when it comes to breakouts in April, but then again, if you pass on every hot player early in the year, you won’t have a winning season. All the more reason to look at the metrics in order to determine whose April is lucky or unlucky. Last year’s column focused mostly on players who may be available in the free agent pool, but this year I’ll include at least one keeper-worthy player in each section.
Cesar Hernandez – I certainly liked Hernandez in 2016 and entering 2017. His high average and the potential for stolen bases appealed to me. What I wouldn’t have banked on is the four home runs he has already hit this year, considering he hit just six in all of 2016. According to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, three of those homers are in the Plenty category, with only one being Just Enough. However, he doesn’t hit a lot of fly balls, and there’s no reason to expect the HR/FB spike (27%) to continue given his previous levels. Some growth over the full season is possible, but I doubt he’ll keep a rate above 12% come September.
What you are paying for is still his batting average and speed, and he’s doing well there. The BABIP is bound to come down, but he has already proven he has a high batting average floor, and his speed score is solid as always. I’m banking on .290 and 25 SB, but he may add extra value with a surprise 12 home runs. Invest even if the power dries up.
Chris Owings – After several disappointing years, Owings managed to hit for average and net 21 steals in 2016. He has taken over as the primary shortstop, opening up plenty of playing time. So far his average is well above what was projected, and he’s collecting steals like he should. However, the high BABIP is going to come down, despite his very high LD% partly supporting it. When it does, another .275-.280 season seems more likely than .300. He’s still running whenever possible, and though his speed metrics are a bit down compared to last year, a season of 30 stolen bases seems easily within reach.
His power is a wild card because although two home runs doesn’t seem like much, his HR/FB is a career high at 15%. He does not hit many fly balls, but if he can manage to keep up the HR/FB, he may flirt with 13+ homers, and that looks a bit more appealing when combined with a decent batting average and stolen base floor. I’m more cautious with Owings than Hernandez, but with full playing time, Owings should net a profit based on where he was drafted.
Steven Souza – He had a rather disappointing 2016 according to some owners, who hoped for at least a 20/10 season and a better average. Then a hip surgery late in the year made us worry whether he would be able to start 2017 healthy and continue his growth. By the roto stats, it seems our fears were unfounded after a hot April. However, there is cause for concern in his metrics, and I caution readers not to get too excited. Souza has proven he can produce a HR/FB well above the league average, however he is a ground ball hitter, and in 2017 he has a fly ball rate under 30%. It’s more likely that his HR/FB drops a bit than his FB% rises to allow growth in his power potential.
As for his average, his BABIP is unsustainable despite the strong LD%. His hard hit rate is only league average, so as his LD% regresses, so will his BABIP and batting average. It gives me hope that he can stay above .250 moving forward, but I wouldn’t bet on more than .270. He does have a better contact and walk rate to work with, so his overall game is improving. A season of .270 and 25 is possible, but I’d expect more like .265 and 20 home runs to be safe. What’s frustrating is his speed, which isn’t where I’d hope. He never had elite wheels, but he seemed capable of reaching double-digit steals. This year he hasn’t run at all. Is it due to his hip? It seems unlikely, but for 2017, you can only count on his power, and even that has a red flag. I may consider selling high on Souza in redraft leagues.
Jeremy Hellickson – Many fantasy managers didn’t buy into Hellickson’s improvement in 2016, and it’s hard to blame them. As of April 2017, it seems the doubters were wrong — until you dive into the metrics. There’s a lot of luck factoring into his game so far, with a tiny BABIP below .200 and a luckily high strand rate. He’s limiting homers right now, and he refuses to walk batters, but he isn’t striking out anyone either.
As I say throughout this article, it’s a small sample size, so a lot can change during the season. However, there’s far more risk here than his shiny ratios indicate. His metrics don’t bode well for a full year’s worth of profit, so if you can sell high on him, do so.
Dallas Keuchel – He got even better from 2014 to 2015, and most of the metrics actually supported it. That said, there was a chink in the armor: a rising HR/FB. Elite ground ball rates normally help mitigate the damage, but it makes sense that with even a slight rise in FB% (to 24% in 2016) and a 16% HR/FB, his strand rate suffered, contributing to the ERA spike. A high (for him) BABIP helped raise his WHIP as well. At least part of the problem was his two-seamer losing all effectiveness, going from a PITCHf/x value of over 17.0 in 2014-15 to -7.0 in 2016.
Early 2017 results show he’s righting the ship on his fastball, with a PITCHf/x value of 5.0. Though it’s not the elite level of his 2014-15 peak, it’s still a large improvement from last season. He’s also back to a crazy-high GB% of 70%, and he is walking even fewer batters. He is experiencing extremely good fortune in BABIP and strand rate right now, but I do not fear a collapse back to 2016 levels. He’s closer to repeating 2015 than he is to falling back to 2016, so hold on tightly to him.
Hanley Ramirez – I have to preface this analysis with the known fact that Hanley has shoulder soreness he is playing through. Clearly that’s going to affect his production, so it’s no surprise he is in the Stock Down category. The power isn’t there (HR/FB of 5%) right now, even though his FB% is above his career level. It seems when he is lofting it, he’s losing the ability to hit it hard enough to leave the yard. Unless his shoulder gets better in a hurry, I wouldn’t expect more than 20 home run this year, and even 15 may be a stretch.
That said, his batting average is more unlucky than poor skills. A low BABIP can’t be explained away, because his hard hit rate is above the league average, and his LD% is a career best. I wouldn’t be surprised if he hit .275 the rest of the way and put up decent counting stats for runs and RBI. Just don’t expect the power in 2017.
Jose Abreu – Into the majors like a lion, out like a lamb? It seems Abreu is losing value with each season. The batting average has been consistently above average for his first three years, so I’m not overly worried about that, although his hard hit rate and LD% (and therefore BABIP) are down so far.
What’s more concerning is the drop in power for four years. Abreu doesn’t hit a lot of fly balls, so he needs a strong HR/FB to reach 25+ home runs. Unfortunately, that HR/FB has dropped every year (27%, 20%, 15%), and he hasn’t hit a home run in April so far. His hard hit rate has come down every season, and he’s entering his thirties. Unless he starts adjusting his swing to get more loft, it’s really hard to project him for more than 20 home runs in the near future, and even though he may hit .290, that doesn’t net a profit for where he was likely drafted. I’m more likely to sell, and I’d even hesitate to buy low.
Keon Broxton – We expected speed, some power, and a poor average. That’s pretty much what we’re getting from Broxton, but the average is well below the Mendoza line, and I’m betting owners wanted more home runs. He simply doesn’t make a lot of contact, with a rate well below 70% in 2016 and 2017. So far, even when he does make contact, it has not been hard contact, which helps validate the subpar BABIP. He’s swinging at even more pitches out of the zone, and he is whiffing on more as well. Last year he was walking (14%), but this year he isn’t (5%).
If he can’t get on base, he won’t get those 30+ steals most people were projecting. Maybe he can right the ship, but I’ve always been wary of extremely poor contact rates, and I don’t see 2017 getting much better for him.
Johnny Cueto – Three wins, but the ratios don’t look good, and the strikeouts are a bit lower than most expected. His K/9 has taken a hit, but his swinging strike rate is still where it has been for years, so we can hope for a bounce back. His BABIP is in line with MLB and career levels despite an increased LD%, and it’s unfortunate that he has lost his ground ball tilt from 2016.
The red flags to watch for are his gopheritis (causing the poor strand rate) and the high (for him) walk rate. Granted that his BB/9 is only 3.0, but it’s his highest in eight years, and it’s well above his recent levels. When all is said and done, you have to assume he’s still an ace. With improved HR/FB and even a small drop in walk rate, he’ll be back to a 3.00 ERA and 1.10 WHIP.
Jharel Cotton – He was a sleeper entering 2017, and as we all know, three or four starts doesn’t predict a full season. However, most of the metrics indicate it’s his fault. He seems to have bad luck in strand rate given he is not allowing a lot of home runs. The rest of the stats I keep an eye on scream for improvement. His swinging strike rate and K/9 are down, and his BB/9 is an ugly 4.4. He’s giving up too many line drives, and hitters are making more contact against him.
His changeup hasn’t been effective according to PITCHf/x values, and he’s supposed to have one of the best, so that seems to be one of the biggest issues. It’s early yet, but it’s not all bad luck here. Watch his breaking balls and their values as he progresses. If his best pitch doesn’t get better, then you can only expect more of the same from him.
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